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The Woodlands

More fire department sexual harassment allegations

Welcome to the Woodlands.

When she began her job at the fire department of The Woodlands Township in July 2013, Julie Thomas believed her skin was sufficiently thick to endure a work environment dominated almost entirely by “men with big egos.”

But Thomas, hired as a customer service representative when she was 22, said she soon felt overwhelmed as she became the target of sexually charged comments, jokes and explicit sexual propositions, allegations she detailed in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the township last month in a Houston federal court.

The lawsuit against The Woodlands Township alleges that Thomas was subjected to sexual harassment in a hostile work environment where four women work with more than 100 men. When she complained to a supervisor and to the Human Resources office, she contends she was fired in retaliation.

[…]

The lawsuit against The Woodlands Township describes the fire department there as an “old-boys club or a fraternity house, ” where members “created a severe and pervasive hostile work environment based on sex.”

The harassment escalated in 2015 after Thomas began a weight loss regime, her suit says.

In one incident, according to the lawsuit, Thomas said Battalion Chief Jason Washington told her that she was “looking good these days” and suggested that they could have sex. The chief assured Thomas that her husband, firefighter Josh Thomas, could be kept in the dark.

“Come on Julie, Josh doesn’t have to know,” said Washington, according to suit.

In another incident, the lawsuit describes that Lt. Thomas Richardson “came up to Mrs. Thomas and made sound effects that mimicked a motorboat noise, which is frequently associated with placing one’s lips on a woman’s breasts, and said ‘Oh girl, the things I can do to you.’”

Thomas alleged she reported the incidents to her supervisor and the HR office, but no action was taken.

The Woodlands Township and its Fire Department deny the allegations, of course. I have no insight as to what may or may not have happened in this particular case, but I will say three things. One, no one should be surprised when allegations like this arise, because this has been and still is happening literally everywhere. Two, even if one it taken aback by an individual incident, no one should be surprised when more women come forward to bolster the original accusations now that the barrier of silence has been broken. And three, if you’re tired of hearing about this stuff and wish it would all just stop, remember that the way for it to stop is for there to be no tolerance for harassment. Don’t harass, and don’t defend or ally yourself with those who do, and we will begin to see a real decline in these incidents. We all need to do our part.

Here comes Conroe

Not so little anymore.

This isn’t the first time Conroe, population 82,286, has recorded notable growth.

In 2015, it was one of the 13 fastest-growing cities by percentage, ranking sixth below other Texas cities like San Marcos, Georgetown and Frisco. The next year, according to Census numbers released Thursday, Conroe zoomed to the top spot and became the headline on news stories across the country.

Forty miles north of downtown Houston, Conroe is the county seat of one of the fastest growing counties in Texas. Montgomery County netted more than 19,700 residents between July 2015 and July 2016, as Houston-area suburbs continued to expand.

In fact, Texas had four of the five fastest-growing large cities in the U.S., each near a major city. Following Conroe were the Dallas suburbs of Frisco and McKinney, which grew by 6.2 percent and 5.9 percent, respectively. Georgetown, an Austin suburb, was the fifth-fastest growing city with a population increase of 5.5 percent.

Officials in the Texas cities and the state’s demographer attribute the growth to various factors, including the state’s robust jobs market and the cities’ diversified economies, lower costs of living and skilled workforces that earn higher wages.

“A lot of times when people think of Texas, they think about cowboys and roping cows. But really we have … cutting edge manufacturing, technology and finance, and certainly all of the oil extraction activity as well,” Texas State Demographer Lloyd Potter said.

For Conroe Mayor Toby Powell, a self-described “ol’ boy” who has lived in the city all his 76 years, the growth is no surprise.

In fact, Powell said, Conroe officials already had been planning for increased demand for city services and infrastructure. A new police station has just opened, and a new fire station is under construction. The city also has purchased 75 acres of land to build a second sewer plant.

Traffic congestion already can be seen just a few minutes away from its town square lined by old-fashioned street lamps and dotted with benches extolling the city’s history. Along Highway 105, which runs east-west through Conroe, shopping centers are home to chain stores and restaurants like Target, Home Depot, Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill, and queues of cars back up at lights and turn lanes.

Maybe I shouldn’t have joked about Conroe trying to annex The Woodlands back in the day. The former-small-town-turned-booming-suburb narrative isn’t new, and like so many other places – Katy, Pearland, Spring, etc etc etc – two facts remain: The original small town and the booming suburb that supplants it are two very different places, and the secret ingredient in all of them is an abundance of cheap, undeveloped land on which to build. That was Houston’s secret once upon a time, too. I don’t have any large point to make here, but I will note that just as the politics in places like Katy and Pearland have started to change as their populations have increased and diversified, so too will this happen in Conroe. It would be nice to have a bit of Democratic infrastructure in place for when that happens.

Montgomery County officials indicted over road bond shenanigans

I know I’m a bad person, but this continues to amuse me greatly.

A grand jury has indicted Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal and two commissioners, charging them with violating Texas’ open meetings law last year while developing a bond package for new and improved roads.

Traffic-weary voters in the rapidly growing county approved the $280 million financing proposal, but the indictments left Doyal and Commissioners Jim Clark and Charlie Riley to face criminal charges for their actions in getting it on the ballot.

Grand jurors also charged Marc Davenport, an adviser who helped to broker a deal on the bond proposal. He is married to the county’s treasurer, Stephanne Davenport.

Chris Downey, the special prosecutor who presented the case to the grand jury over six months, said that the misdemeanor charges are punishable by a fine up to $500, as many as six months in jail or both.

Downey said that it’s too early to know whether the case will go to trial.

“Like any criminal matter, whether or not a matter goes to trial is going to be a function of further discovery and negotiation,” he said.

See here for the background. The charges are fairly small potatoes, and I’ll be very surprised if they result in any kind of guilty verdict. I just find it all hilarious. The next time anyone tries to tell you that the suburbs are so much better at running things than the big cities, point to this and remind them that we can generally get bond measures on the ballot without anyone getting indicted.

My vision for Metro: Expansion

HoustonMetro

Part 1: Buses
Part 2: Marketing itself

One of the things that new Metro Chair Carrin Patman has been talking about is a regional transportation plan, to get everyone – including cities and counties not currently involved with Metro – to agree on what transit is and how we best go about doing it in a way that serves the greater region’s needs. I am fully on board with this idea, and my purpose today is to discuss a few specific ideas towards that end. My assumption throughout this post is that Metro can and should take a leadership role in this discussion. One can argue for an organization like H-GAC to take the lead, but I see them as more of a facilitator. Metro is the dominant transit provider in the region, and any meaningful regional plan for transit necessarily goes through them. They need to be the driving force to make things happen.

To me, the first principle in a regional transit plan is that it should be possible for anyone in the region – and I am talking about the ten-county greater Houston region that H-GAC covers – to plan and execute a trip on any transit line, from any point of origin and to any destination – from a single app or website. That includes mapping out the trip, estimating total trip time by the published schedules, and paying for the fare. It shouldn’t matter which agency or agencies are involved – any transfers, whether inter- or intra-agency, should be seamless. All you as the transit customer need to do is say that you want to start here and end there, and the rest is made available to you.

The first step towards this is for every transit agency in the greater Houston area to make all of its data available for the other agencies to use. Routes, schedules, fares, alerts, outages, whatever else – put it into a standard format that can be shared and used by applications. The city of Houston has done a lot of work to make its data available, so there’s an example to follow. Metro undoubtedly has the most data to make available, and likely also has the most IT resources at its disposal, so they ought to take the lead on this.

Once the data has been made available to all, the next step is to thoroughly review it, to see what obvious holes exist and what simple things – relocating a station, adjusting a schedule, and so forth – can be done to fix them. See Raj Mankad’s story of taking transit from Houston to Galveston for an example of what I’m talking about.

Now it’s time to build all that data into an app so that people can plan their trips. And as long as that is being done, there may as well be a parallel effort to allow for payment from within the app. Metro is already developing a smartphone payment system, so this shouldn’t be a stretch. The bonus here would be for the app to allow for payment on any system. Along those same lines, Metro Q-cards should be accepted as payment on any other regional system, with a reciprocal agreement in place as well. (*) I know there are reasons why so many different transit systems exist in our region. All I’m saying is that if we really want a regional transportation solution, as Metro appears to want, then we need those differences to be made transparent to riders.

So that’s the goal, and the path to meeting it. I think about this on the days when I take the bus home, because the stop where I pick up the 85 is also a pickup point for various Woodlands buses. I don’t have a need to go to the Woodlands, but if I ever did I shouldn’t have to figure out on my own what I need to do to get there. If Metro and its peer agencies get this done, I wouldn’t have to.

Finally, any discussion of expansion needs to include the fact that Metro doesn’t currently operate in Fort Bend County. That becomes an issue if and when the promised US 90A commuter rail extension – you know, the one that our buddy John Culberson made some promises last year to help get moving – gets funding. That line makes a lot more sense if it can be extended into Fort Bend, but that can really only happen if Metro operates in Fort Bend. For that to happen will take legislative action, and possibly a local referendum; I’m a bit unclear on the exact details. The legislative part I am sure of, and we know how dicey that can be, and how long you have to wait for a second crack at it if at first you don’t succeed. Getting started on that sooner rather than later is probably the better way to go.

(*) – When you think about it, why shouldn’t Metro’s Q-cards work on Via and DART and every other transit agency in the state? The EZ Pass we bought from HCTRA pays for tolls anywhere in the state. Why shouldn’t this also be the case for transit agencies? I’m just saying.

Pro softball returns to Houston

Didn’t know we had pro softball here, but it’s cool that we do.

The new sports franchise debuting here this summer is appropriately named: the Houston Scrap Yard Dawgs.

After an eight-year absence, professional women’s fastpitch softball is coming back to Houston and will be based at an 82-acre complex that is erecting a 4,000-seat stadium near The Woodlands.

Yet two stars of the sport, Cat Osterman and Christa Willams-Yates – both University of Texas standouts and gold-medal Olympians from the Houston area – know the players on this team will have to be scrappers to succeed.

Williams-Yates, 37, who now coaches at Friendswood ISD, was a pitcher with a windmill arm that used to send the ball flying across the plate for the last pro-team based here, the Texas Thunder.

This franchise played three years in League City until its base operations were moved to Rockport, Ill., in 2007.

“I had a great experience playing in the pros,” said Williams-Yates, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, originally from Pasadena. “It was always a challenge. You are playing against the best players in the world. In college, they’re spread out, but now they’re concentrated together.”

Nonetheless, she won the pitcher’s triple crown in 2005 for her wins, strikeouts and earned run average while playing in the National Pro Fastpitch league. She quit after her team relocated to Illinois.

“The lack of media attention killed us in Houston. Nobody knew about us. I can count on one hand in my three years on the team that there was anything in the news about us,” Yates said.

[…]

But while the National Pro Fastpitch league has struggled with rebrandings under two other names since its launching in 2004, Osterman and Willams-Yates believe the best years are ahead for this league.

They say the league has a new weapon: national TV coverage.

“We had consistent coverage this past year of our games. They were shown every Monday and Tuesday on the CBS sports network,” she said. “You could count on finding it there, which has helped grow awareness of the kind of excitement the game can generate.”

Men ages 35-55 are the primary audience for the NCAA world series in softball on ESPN, said the Scrap Yard’s general manager, Kevin Shelton.

I’m in that demographic. I enjoy watching the Women’s College World Series. It’s sort of like baseball, but very different in ways that make it really interesting to watch. I’m intrigued by a pro league in Houston, though having it out by The Woodlands dampens my enthusiasm a bit. I’m glad to see more opportunities for female professional athletes, and I wish the Scrap Yard Dawgs lots of success.

The struggle is real in The Woodlands

One last opportunity – for this year, at least – to mock the flailing efforts at self-governance in Montgomery County.

[Bruce] Tough believes the tea partiers are after “control’ and, in so doing, could stamp out independent thought.

“I don’t want to see any single group control the fate of our community,” Long said. “We’re bigger than one group. All the folks who live here should have a say.”

Mike Bass, a township director who was opposed in 2012 by tea partiers who had once backed him, agreed.

“They want to win control of the township board and then have us incorporate our township into a city,’ Bass said. “We have a perfect limited government and free marketplace now. But they really don’t want that.”

Community leaders agree on one thing: resident frustration over the area’s rapid growth is driving the discontent. Montgomery County’s population, now a half million, is expected to double over the next half-century.

“The Woodlands is a victim of its own success,” said Tough. “Once people build a house here, they want that one to be the last one built. I heard these special interest people saying, ‘Elect me and I’ll stop development.’ It may play well politically, but legally you can’t tell someone what to do with their land.”

The Texas Patriots’ Turner said that while nobody can stop growth, it could be better managed, possibly through incorporating as a city.

Bass said incorporation was put off three years ago because a study then showed it would triple the property tax rate.

So basically, The Woodlands is like Austin, though perhaps with fewer skinny-jeans-wearing hipsters. And the first-time candidate who defeated Bruce Tough last Tuesday is on a self-appointed mission to rescue America from the clutches of evil leftists, presumably beginning with those Alinsky sympathizers on the Woodlands Township Board of Directors. I’m sorry, but Houston politics just can’t hold a candle to this for sheer ridiculousness.

Bondings

Congratulations, Montgomery County!

After rejecting two bond measures for new and improved roadways in four years, including one last spring, traffic-weary voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly backed a $280 million plan to unplug bottlenecks in rapidly growing Montgomery County.

With all precincts reporting, the road bond received the support of more than three-fifths of county voters – a ballot-box reversal that officials attributed to the increasing difficulty in driving the once mostly rural county’s outdated roads.

“It’s a recognition that we’re growing rapidly, and congestion is getting worse every day,” County Judge Craig Doyal said. “It’s time for us to move forward.”

County leaders intend to use the money on 54 projects, including the widening of Texas 105 east of Conroe, a half-loop bypass for Magnolia and improvements along increasingly congested Rayford Road southeast of The Woodlands.

The previous road bond proposal, for $350 million, was defeated by a 14-point margin in May, primarily because of heavy opposition to a proposed extension of Woodlands Parkway for 6 miles through mostly undeveloped land west of The Woodlands. The project riled Woodlands residents who believed it would worsen the master-planned community’s traffic woes.

Backers rushed to get another bond measure before voters this fall, contending that drivers couldn’t wait for new and improved roadways.

The revised bond package didn’t include the controversial project, but opponents argued that it was still a flawed proposal because county leaders placed another measure on the ballot before the completion of two studies identifying the county’s most urgent road needs.

A special prosecutor is investigating whether county officials put the bond package together outside the public view in violation of the state’s open meetings law. Chris Downey, the prosecutor, said Tuesday he does not know when the inquiry will be complete.

The measure was placed on the ballot after Doyal reached a last-minute agreement with the Texas Patriots PAC on the new proposal. The tea party group, which had opposed the bond in May, campaigned for the trimmed-down improvement plan and focused on winning over voters in The Woodlands, where the previous bond failed by a nearly 9-to-1 margin.

So there you have it. What do you think will come next – the bond money will all get spent, or the next bond issue will get put on the ballot because the traffic up there is still too damn bad? Good luck, MontCo, you’re going to need it.

Harris County also scored some bond money.

The four bond measures – $700 million for roads and bridges, $64 million for flood control improvements, $60 million for parks and $24 million to update the overcrowded animal control facility – scored decisive victories in complete but unofficial returns.

The bonds will not result in tax increases.

“Citizens of Harris County spoke volumes tonight that they understand the growth that has occurred and the challenges that loom,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack. “In a county that hasn’t had a property tax increase in almost 20 years, these bond proceeds will help the county build the infrastructure people need.”

Radack said “the county will spend this money prudently, over numerous years, not quickly.” He said it will be structured wisely.

About 1 million more people now live in the county than in 2000 and 75 percent of those new residents live in the unincorporated portions of the county where government-funded roads and infrastructure projects have had to hustle to catch up with vast commercial and residential development.

Radack said the burden will continue to grow if Houston continues its recent non-annexation policy, citing statistics showing that 51 percent of county residents now live in Houston, down from 77 percent 50 years ago.

I’m sure sometime before Harris County starts spending their bond money, they’ll tell us what they plan to spend it on. Those of us here in Houston don’t need to worry ourselves about it, since none of it will be spent here anyway.

Chron overview of the Montgomery County bond referendum

The voters there are engaged in this issue, that much is for sure.

Life is on hold in the parking lot that is Rayford Road, 4 miles of too many cars squeezing into too few lanes. Even when it isn’t so busy, which isn’t often, there is a chance a passing train can bring traffic to a halt.

It is just the sort of bottleneck Montgomery County leaders intend to unplug with a $280 million bond measure to build new and wider roadways that voters will decide on Nov. 3.

The measure would set aside the biggest chunk of money – $60 million – for improvements along Rayford Road, one of the county’s most congested streets. While the project could bring needed relief to traffic-weary drivers, the roadway represents only a small part of the rapidly growing county’s mobility problems.

That’s because there are far more projects across the county than could be covered by a one-time burst of cash. A new study estimated road needs to be about $1.6 billion over the next quarter-century for just south county, roughly the area from the Harris County line to FM 1488 and Texas 242, including The Woodlands.

“The bond issue is only the start of the process,” said retired Montgomery County Judge Alan Sadler, who backs the measure. “The county has billions of dollars of road needs.”

If voters approve the borrowing, those funds could generate hundreds of millions more in state and federal aid for road projects, Sadler said. But voters have rejected the last two requests for new transportation money.

[…]

Sadler, the former judge, said he expects the county to ask voters to approve more borrowing within next four or five years.

While H-GAC’s study made recommendations with cost estimates, it’s not a comprehensive mobility plan, said Carlene Mullins, a transportation planner for the regional council.

“It’s a concept,” she said. “It’s going to be up to local officials on how to implement a plan.”

But Mullins said they need to act. “Doing what you can with the funds you have would be better than nothing at all,” she said. “If you don’t build any roads, the people are still going to come. It’s just going to get more congested.”

See here, here, and here for some background. I have no dog in this fight and don’t really care what happens with this referendum, I just continue to be amused by it all. It’s a lovely combination of parochial self-interest, severe dislike of spending money, and utter lack of planning, which is ironic given the super-master=planned status of The Woodlands, with a dash of back-room dealmaking thrown in for good measure. I’ve wondered before what Montgomery County will do if they continue being unable to pass these bonds, but it’s also worth wondering if they can solve their problems even with a compliant electorate. There’s an awful lot of demand on their roads, with a rapidly growing population and few if any other tricks in their bag beyond building more roads. What does Montgomery County look like in 20 or 30 years if can’t ever get anywhere in a timely fashion? I’m glad that’s not my problem.

The Woodlands versus its neighbors

I have three things to say about this.

The Woodlands prides itself on being the best-planned community around, with tree-studded neighborhoods, miles of trails, sprawling parks and a town center with a distinctly urban feel.

Across Montgomery County, however, some see The Woodlands as a snooty, well-off enclave that grouses about its tax dollars subsidizing services elsewhere.

Unfair or not, those hard feelings are coming into view as the county nears a Nov. 3 vote on whether to invest in new and improved roadways. The $280 million bond measure is a slimmed-down version of one that failed four months ago amid heavy opposition in The Woodlands.

After urging county leaders to try again on the coming ballot, the township’s governing board has come out against the revised bond measure, saying that the package is tainted because it was put together in negotiations outside public view.

A special prosecutor is investigating whether the county’s dealings broke the state’s open meetings law. Even then, some local officials and residents are upset by The Woodlands’ hasty turnaround.

“You can’t overcome the fact that we still need the roads,” said Alan Sadler, who recently retired after 24 years as Montgomery County’s judge. “It’s dire. If we wait another year, we won’t have the roads built until 2020, 2021 or 2022. We can’t wait that long.”

The Woodlands board’s opposition to the measure before the investigation is complete has widened a divide between township and county leaders. Sadler, among others, was irked by the township’s sudden decision last year to pull out of a deal to help pay for a new customs facility at Montgomery County’s airport. Township leaders complained about a lack of responsiveness from county leaders.

And in May, voters in The Woodlands rallied to defeat the initial road bond because it included a controversial extension of Woodlands Parkway west of the master-planned community, a project that critics said would worsen traffic woes. Forty percent of the voters in the countywide election came from its largest community, and they opposed it by a 9-1 margin.

Penny Benbow, who resides in southeast Montgomery County, said voters outside The Woodlands listened to its concerns, and many rejected the bond measure, too. But the parkway extension isn’t part of the new bond package, and it’s time for the town to support it, she said.

“We can’t do it without you,” Benbow told the township’s governing board last week. “Your neighbors stood by you in May. Now it’s time for you to stand by your neighbors.”

See here and here for the background. I know I’m a horrible person for saying this, but I find this whole saga to be hilarious. This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen in the suburbs! You guys should be setting a good example for those benighted city residents! Stop fighting before you make Joel Kotkin cry!

Bruce Tough, the board’s chairman, bristles at the suggestion that The Woodlands isn’t a good neighbor. He noted that the township has supported the Conroe Independent School District’s bond measures and pays “the lion’s share” of taxes in the county.

Of course The Woodlands pays the lion’s share of the property taxes in the county. That would be because the Woodlands has the lion’s share of the property value in the county. If the Woodlands would like for its share of the property taxes to be lower, they’ll need for the rest of the county to be built up more. I don’t know what share of Harris County’s property taxes Houston pays, but I’ll bet it used to be more back when more of Harris County was uninhabited or undeveloped.

The highest priority is Rayford Road, an artery that has become a backed-up pool of frustration for the unincorporated neighborhoods east of The Woodlands. Plans call for widening the road to as many as six lanes and building an overpass over railroad tracks.

“The Woodlands has a good road grid,” said Thomas Gray, a planner for the area council. “The east side doesn’t, so that’s why they’re experiencing the problems they have right now.”

I predict that regardless of what happens with this particular bond issue, the problems won’t go away. In fact, I’d bet the projects that the bond would provide for give little more than temporary relief. This is partly because of the fast growth in Montgomery County – there’s only so much you can do when that many people are moving in – but it’s also partly by design. You pretty much have to drive everywhere in Montgomery County, and that’s not going to change. There are plenty of places you can live in Houston and do a minimal amount of driving. Until that becomes the case in Montgomery County, they’re going to have to keep paving to try to keep up. Good luck with that.

No way to run a road bond election

Am I a bad person for being unreasonably amused by this?

A special prosecutor has been assigned to determine whether behind-the-scenes negotiations could void a last-minute deal struck by Montgomery County commissioners to get a scaled-back $270 million road bond package on the upcoming November ballot.

At question is whether some commissioners and a powerful tea party group violated the open meetings law. It would mark the third defeat of a road bond proposal in the past decade, with the last one coming four months ago when voters rejected a 20 percent larger bond proposal.

“We’re going to aggressively inquire into all communications and activities that led up to commissioners putting this latest bond proposal on the ballot,” said Chris Downey, the Houston attorney appointed as special prosecutor. “We need to move quickly to determine if anything criminal was done before the Nov. 3 election is held. It could be voidable.”

A Texas Ranger has been ordered to gather emails, phone records and statements from those involved in the negotiations. Downey will then use the information to determine whether a quorum of elected officials intentionally held secret deliberations with the Texas Patriots PAC tea party that decided upon the bond proposal.

County Judge Craig Doyal and Commissioner Charlie Riley have acknowledged meeting with the tea party group, but that doesn’t represent a quorum of the five-member court. However, if emails or phones were used to include other commissioners in the decision process, it could become a “walking quorum,” which violates the law.

“This can be a way for officials to avoid open discussions in a public venue. Under the law, the public is to be notified of when and where a meeting is held so that anyone can attend,” said Dan Bevarly, interim executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. “It sounds like elected officials in this case might later come together in public only to rubber-stamp decisions made earlier in private.”

On Thursday night, The Woodlands Township Board voted unanimously to withdraw support given to the November bond package in light of the investigation.

“It stinks. It’s a back-room deal that lacks transparency,” said Township Chairman Bruce Tough. “A special interest group (Texas Patriot PAC) is dictating terms of the road bond to the county. They are not elected to represent us.”

See here and here for some background. I haven’t followed the details of Montgomery County’s efforts to get another road bond on the ballot, and I don’t have anything constructive to say. I’m just laughing at the comedy of errors going on here. For a region that has so much growth and projected growth, they sure have a hard time governing themselves. You have to wonder if this inability to do anything will eventually hinder all that growth they’re supposed to have.

And then there’s this:

The Texas Patriot PAC issued a written statement: “All private citizens have a right to petition people they elected to serve them. Meeting with two commissioners is not a violation of the open meetings laws. Any suggestion that these meetings violated such laws is entirely without merit.”

Because of the fast-approaching deadline to get a bond proposal on the ballot, the organization said there was insufficient time for more input from residents.

“Throughout this process, we thought of ourselves as representatives of all the conservative citizen groups. The framework ultimately agreed to was representative of what all the groups had been proposing since (the last bond defeat),” the statement said.

However, Duane Ham, who had served on the committee that supported the last failed bond proposal, disagreed. He recently formed the Texas Conservative Tea Party Coalition that the Patriot PAC called the “fake tea party.” “It’s sad when a few are controlling and dictating what happens in our county instead of our people.”

I’m not the only one who thought of this, am I?

I don’t know what this world is coming to when tea party groups start turning on each other.

Montgomery County “voter fraud” case update

Glad to hear this. The whole case is ridiculous.

A self-described “egghead,” Jim Jenkins accomplished his dream by founding his own microsystems company. He also takes satisfaction in being a Christian conservative who is unabashedly proud of his 11 grandchildren.

At the same time, the 64-year-old Woodlands resident acknowledges being “bullheaded” and willing to risk it all in a court battle that he says is about voting rights. But state prosecutors contend its about illegal voting.

The stakes are high: If Jenkins loses the fight, he could go to prison for three years.

The story began five years ago when Jenkins and others became concerned that the Woodlands Road Utility District was spending millions of dollars on road improvements without “any voter oversight.” So he led a voter revolt to take over the district’s board and then dismantle the organization. But since he and nine cohorts did not live within the district’s boundaries, they changed their voting addresses to a motel that was inside the district. Their plan ended with Jenkins and some of the others being convicted in 2013 for the felony of illegal voting.

Yet now Jenkins has scored his own legal victory, as the 14th Court of Appeals reversed his conviction and sent his case back to be retried.

“At the start I was offered probation, but I wouldn’t take it because I’m not guilty,” said Jenkins, a father of three who holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Rice University. “My motto is, ‘If you’re right, you fight.’ ”

Jenkins’ case reflects the strong opinions over roads and taxes in the politically conservative Woodlands, as well as uncertainty over the residency requirements of Texas’ election laws.

He is one of only a dozen people in the past decade to be prosecuted by the Texas attorney general for illegal voting and to receive a prison sentence, with most of those sentences amounting to days – not years, records show. Then-Attorney General Greg Abbott tweeted of Jenkins’ sentencing by a jury: “Another Voter Fraud Conviction leads to prison.”

[…]

Since the district’s creation in 1991, it has widened most of The Woodlands’ major arteries, added turn lanes, constructed bridges and improved signalization, said Mike Page, the road district’s attorney.

But Jenkins is disgusted by the district’s “spider web” boundaries that run and skip along thoroughfares to take in 2,475 acres of commercial properties. This includes entities such as Anadarko, Chevron Phillips and The Woodlands Mall while excluding all residential areas.

Jenkins contends that such gerrymandering is “disenfranchising” the public because residents have no vote or say on how the roads are developed. Although the commercial entities pay the property tax – 35 cents per $100 of assessed value – Jenkins believes that many of the costs associated with the projects eventually get passed onto residents.

To rectify the problem, Jenkins and nine cohorts decided to try to win a majority of seats on the road district board, which then had five members whom they believed had become too cozy with the community’s developers.

They then would pay off the debt, turn off the lights and shut the district down.

However, the road district’s elections are not typical by any measure.

Commercial business owners and their employees cannot vote. And although those filing to run as a board member do not have to reside inside the district, only those who claim a residence within its boundaries can cast ballots. And the district has virtually no residential areas.

“Last time I checked, the district had only four registered voters,” said Page, the attorney for the road district. “There’s a man, his wife and daughter living in an apartment attached to a building that’s inside the district. That homeowner, Dirk Laukien, was granted special permission for a residence in a commercial zone. He travels a lot. Then the fourth voter is the manager of Marriott’s Residence Inn who lives on the premises.”

Read the whole thing, it’s good stuff. I’ve noted this case before, and had a couple of conversations with Jenkins’ co-defendant, Adrian Heath. We’ve basically established that there’s no enforceable standard of residency for candidates, so it’s really unclear why the book was thrown at these guys. In searching for an image to use with this post, I came across this site that was put up in support of Jenkins et al. The base domain name and some of the links don’t work any more, but click around, there’s a lot of useful background on this case, which to my mind is more about Greg Abbott claiming a “vote fraud” scalp that didn’t involve Democrats of color than anything else. See also the Texas Election Law Blog, whose proprietor is a supporting player in this drama. I’m glad that Jenkins got a new trial, and I wish him and his co-defendants the best of luck in beating the rap.

I got those reverse commuting blues

The Woodlands is growing as en employment center, which means it is also seeing a lot more traffic in what used to be the reverse commute direction.

There is no longer a simple drive to this onetime bedroom community, which has turned into an economic powerhouse and upended the flow of traffic in the process. These days, it can be nasty in both directions during rush hour, with just as many people driving to The Woodlands for work as residents leaving for jobs in the nation’s fourth-largest city.

The movement is unique in the eight-county Houston region, where commuters mostly have followed the same paths from the suburbs into the city for decades. The rapidly growing ranks of reverse commuters have created new challenges for those responsible for keeping the area out of gridlock.

“I-45 North is congested in both directions every morning and afternoon,” said Thomas Gray, chief transportation planner for the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “It’s because there are so many jobs in The Woodlands now, and people can’t or don’t want to move for them.”

[…]

Houston Transtar data shows the 21-mile stretch from the northern edge of The Woodlands to Beltway 8 takes about 34 minutes on average at 6 p.m. – up from 21 minutes just four years ago.

That’s in part because of road construction south of The Woodlands. But it’s also because there are more vehicles using I-45 than it was designed to handle.

For example, the stretch between Rayford Road and Woodlands Parkway is carrying 253,000 cars a day, which is 18 percent over capacity, officials said. The Texas Department of Transportation expects some 390,000 vehicles a day to be passing through that stretch by 2030.

Some people also worry about increased traffic within The Woodlands, with several high-rises sprouting in the town’s center, giving it a look that’s similar to Houston’s Galleria, a place where traffic routinely backs up throughout the day.

“There’s just so much volume that congestion starts early,” said Gavin Dillinghman, a scientist who commutes some 40 miles from west Houston to the Houston Advanced Research Center in The Woodlands. “You’re not beating anyone by leaving at 6 a.m. anymore. We just leave earlier and earlier, and it’s worse and worse every day.”

One problem is a lack of options for those with the reverse commute, which has existed for decades in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and Washington that are ringed by mini-cities.

For Houstonians with jobs in The Woodlands, though, there are no buses going their way, no park-and-ride lots and no high occupancy vehicle, or HOV,lanes for relief. The only alternative is the Hardy Toll Road, which can cut down on drive times but does nothing to reduce the number of cars making the daily trip to and from the suburb.

That could change. The Woodlands is considering introducing bus service for reverse commuters. The township already provides express bus service for residents working downtown and at the Medical Center and Greenway Plaza.

“We’re looking at it very closely,” said Chris LaRue, transit program manager for The Woodlands. “The questions are, what’s going to make it viable and how soon should we do it?”

Three things:

1. Most of this is happening north of Beltway 8, where I-45 is six lanes wide – this is the portion of the freeway that has been improved by TxDOT already. There’s also three lanes’ worth of the Hardy Toll Road that can get you to the Woodlands. It’s not a lack of road capacity that’s a problem here, is what I’m saying. When TxDOT does whatever it’s going to do to I-45 between the Beltway and downtown, it will only get worse, just as I-10 inside the Loop got congested after it was widened out west.

2. It’s good to hear that the Woodlands is considering bus service from Houston into their township. There’s clearly a need for it. I would hope that they work with Metro on this, mostly to ensure there aren’t any egregious gaps where there should be overlaps. Ideally, they will work to integrate the two to extend the reach of their own service, and possibly save themselves some money on facilities. I’m thinking they should aim to have at least a few stations for their service at Metro transit centers, and provide a subsidy for for their riders to take a Metro bus or rail line to get there.

3. Ultimately, the only real solution here is going to be to get fewer cars to use the road. As we should surely have learned by now, adding highway capacity doesn’t solve highway traffic problems, and does a lot to exacerbate traffic problems on surface streets. More transit, more carpooling, more people living close enough to work to be able to walk or bike – all these things need to be in the mix. The idea that Something Must Be Done to enable you as a single-occupancy-vehicle-driver to get to work faster needs to be put to rest, because at some point that just ain’t gonna be possible any more. The sooner we all accept that, the better off we’ll all be.

Encroaching on Sam Houston National Forest

The march of development continues apace.

All over the Texas Piney Woods, along farm-to-market roads and state highways, multicolored signs hawk real estate – small plots of paradise among the tall trees. The billboards offer “gated acreage” and “room to breathe,” promoting rural charm not far from urban amenities.

But in the process of subdividing and selling the woods, fast-growing Houston has found its way into once-remote public lands. The Sam Houston National Forest, 60 miles north of downtown, is suddenly buckled up to the big city, with thousands of new houses sprouting around it and bringing a new set of challenges for forest rangers.

There are more people living here, more people coming for a visit. And more people mean more traffic on two-lane roadways, more off-road vehicles going their own way, more fallen trees on fence lines, more trash and more crime. Just in the last few years, authorities have found three farms growing marijuana for Mexican cartels.

“There are now six lanes to our doorstep,” district ranger Warren Oja said of the recently widened Interstate 45, which cuts through the forest. “More people are finding the Sam Houston (National Forest) who didn’t know it was here before.”

Not that there is anything wrong with people wanting to camp and hike and fish in the expansive forest, which covers 163,000 acres in Montgomery, Walker and San Jacinto counties, and Oja is making plans to create more recreational opportunities.

No, Oja said, what’s troubling about the forest’s growing popularity is the need to do more with less, making its preservation more difficult than ever before. With budget cuts across the U.S. Forest Service, his staff has gone from 40 people in 2010 to 23 now, including one technician to maintain campground facilities and 240 miles of trails.

[…]

Brandt Mannchen, a Houston resident who has volunteered countless hours of labor for the Sam Houston forest, said the federal agency that oversees the area needs to be better funded, with money either for more staff or to buy additional property to fill in the holes in the forest to limit urban encroachment. The forest, for example, didn’t receive additional funding in 2011, when the driest year in Texas history damaged thousands of trees. Some drought-related debris plugged culverts during May’s storms, causing unpaved service roads to wash away.

“The money we are talking about is peanuts,” Mannchen said. “We are being penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

The state’s four national forests and two national grasslands are operating on a $15 million budget, down from $36 million in 2008. Forests managers have supplemented their appropriations through timber sales, which totaled $1.3 million last year. And Oja said volunteers have provided about $400,000 in labor since October at the Sam Houston forest.

Mannchen said it isn’t right that the forest’s trails are open only because of the work of volunteers. The Sam Houston Trails Association, for one, is maintaining trails and constructing new ones through grants.

The story doesn’t examine the reasons for the budget cuts, but if I had to guess I’d say they’re the result of sequestration, which as it happens Congressional Democrats are trying to kill off. That would be good news for Sam Houston National Forest and the people who use it, not that anyone who lives nearby is likely to understand that. One way or the other, I hope the Forest Service can get what it needs. The Sam Houston National Forest is worth taking care of.

Montgomery County tries to figure out what it wants

Can they ever pass a road bond?

Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal says he will hold community meetings to assess what direction the county should go to improve mobility after a $350 million road bond package was defeated by county voters this month.

The measure to finance 77 projects was defeated May 9 amid strong opposition to a controversial proposal to extend Woodlands Parkway to the west. About 56 percent of those who cast ballots opposed the proposal.

Voters in the The Woodlands’ precinct soundly rejected the plan, although it passed, sometimes by a narrow margin, in the other three precincts.

Doyal and other county commissioners plan to meet Tuesday to canvass the 28,400 voters, which is twice the number that went to the polls in the last road bond election.

“I want to find out exactly what the people want,” said Doyal, following a cursory review of the election returns.

Voters from The Woodlands turned out in the largest numbers, making up 40 percent of all who voted. More than four out of five Woodlands voters opposed the bond proposal.

The next-largest turnout occurred farther north in Montgomery, where residents cast 17 percent of the ballots. Nearly two out of three voters there favored the package.

“We have to have a bond issue, but I do not want to go out again until I’m convinced we have full support – strong support – county-wide,” Doyal said. “I’m not sure when that can be done.”

See here for the background. With the caveat that I have not looked at any precinct data for this election, I’d say the issue here is not one of finding full support for a bond referendum, it’s of finding support from The Woodlands. Flip things around so that you had a bond that they loved but everyone else hated, and it would have passed. Of course, then three out of four County Commissioners would have opposed it, so it never would have made it to the ballot. How they square this circle, I have no idea, and as someone who sets foot (or tire) in Montgomery County maybe twice a year, I don’t have much at stake in it. But thinking about their bond failures, and the reasons why this particular referendum tanked, led me to the following thought: It is often said that the reason why many people support mass transit is because they hope other people will take it, thus freeing up space on the roads for themselves. I think something similar was at play here, where the “No” voters in the Woodlands only want new roads built that keep people out of their neighborhoods. Good luck figuring it out, y’all.

Montgomery County rejects its road bonds

One more election result of interest.

In a hard-fought election, Montgomery County voters went to the polls in record numbers to cast ballots that ultimately defeated the $350 million in proposed road bonds.

Nearly 58 percent of the more than 28,700 voters opposed the bonds that included the controversial extension of Woodlands Parkway that critics said would channel 6,000 additional motorists daily into the heart of this master-planned community and ruin its hometown ambiance.

This marks the second defeat of a road bond proposal in the last decade. In 2011, voters rejected a $200 million proposal that opponents said lacked a specific list of projects. The last bond proposal approved was $100 million in 2005.

[…]

This bond defeat sends county commissioners scrambling back to the drawing boards to find a bond proposal that voters in one of the fastest-growing counties in the state can support. Traffic back-ups are only expected to worsen as the county’s population of a half-million is soon projected to outstrip all surrounding suburbs. Experts forecast the population will increase by 108,000 – equivalent to a community the size of The Woodlands – in just the next five years and then surge to over 2 million by 2035.

However, bond opponents such as Bunch and Texas Patriots PAC president Julie Turner believe commissioners can do a better job setting priorities for road improvements. They want them to eliminate some of the 77 proposed road projects like the Parkway extension and road repairs that they believe should be covered by the regular county budget and not done with borrowed bond money paid back over 30 years.

But bond supporters like Blair say the likelihood of commissioners coming back with a new revised bond proposal for November after two defeats is “very slim.” “Voters have shown they don’t want it. It makes me sad because we’ve gone a decade without any road bonds and the traffic is only getting worse,” she said.

Bunch, the lone member of the 11-member road bond committee to oppose the bond proposal, admitted County Judge Craig Doyal and others had threatened to significantly cut the amount of bond money allocated for The Woodlands in any revised bond package as they did not want to reward the opposition. The failed bond package had included $105 million for road improvements in the precinct that includes The Woodlands – 30 percent more than the other three precincts. The other three were to have received between $80 and $85 million each.

“I think that was a lot of pre-election posturing,” said Bunch.”They are going to get over it. They’re going to listen to the voters and make needed changes, They said we were a small group of loud people. But we’re no longer the silent majority. They need to listen to the people. We demand they put a bond proposal back on the ballot in November.”

Commissioner James Noack, who supported the bond package but was the lone commissioner opposing the Parkway extension, said this election “woke a sleeping giant” and the rest of commissioners court should listen,

Steve Toth, a former Texas representative opposing the bonds, said commissioners shuld take the $22 million allocated for extending Woodlands Parkway for six miles to Texas 249 and use to improve roads that really need it now. He wants the money applied to improvements on FM 1488 and others, rather on roads that go through areas where nobody now lives.

Meanwhile, several county commissioners, such as Jim Clark and Charlie Riley, said they weren’t likely to put a road bond proposal on the November ballot because there would already be a large school bond proposal from Conroe ISD on that ballot.

Commissioner Riley has also vowed to keep the extension project in any new revised bond proposal. “Nothing would be different,” said Riley, whose precinct includes the territory where the extension would be built. He said that he believes that he has the backing of other commissioners.

“I think this looks like another long year with no traffic improvements,” said Bruce Tough, who chairs The Woodlands Township. “Some of these groups are against government. But they demand more services and want taxes lowered at the same time.” The Township was split on the issue with three commissioners supporting the bond package, three others against and one taking no position.

There was a pre-election story that covered a lot of the same ground in this article. I have no position on the merits of this bond and didn’t follow the debate at all. I’m just amused by it all. We hear all the time about how we need to spend money to meet the transportation needs of fast-growth suburbs like Montgomery when the people who live there can’t agree on what those needs are themselves. Maybe the fourth time will be the charm, Montgomery. Good luck with that.

Opposition to the high speed rail line gets organized

You had to figure something like this was coming. I was recently informed of NoTexasCentral.com, and I’ll let them introduce themselves:

Texas Central Railway (TCR), a Japanese funded Texas-based private railroad company, is set to build and operate a high speed train system from Dallas to Houston. With stations slated only at the ends of the line, the train will run at over 200 mph through some of Texas’ most beautiful farmland, marring the landscape and tranquility of our great state, as well as displacing families and disrupting farming and ranching operations. Closer into the terminating cities, historic neighborhoods and small businesses will be affected in irreparable ways. Property value loss, probable tax hikes to offset lost revenue from lowered property values, property loss, environmental impacts, lack of economic benefit and noise/vibration disruptions will all impact the lives of so many Texans.

We all oppose the current primary and secondary routes being selected by Texas Central Railway. Help us save our homes and farmland from this high speed train by voicing your opposition!

Their Facebook page is here. While rural counties have been resistant to the high speed rail line for some time now, the focal point of the opposition appears to be in Montgomery County, as This story linked from the Facebook page illustrates:

More than 800 people packed the Lone Star Community Center in Montgomery Monday night to learn what they can do to stop a proposed multibillion-dollar high-speed rail route that would cut through West Montgomery County and connect Houston with Dallas.

According to local legislators and county elected officials, the Texas Central Railway, a private company planning the high-speed rail, has the power of eminent domain to make the project happen.

“This is one of the biggest threats to the county I have seen in years,” former Montgomery County Judge Alan B. Sadler told the crowd. “It’s extreme, ladies and gentlemen.”

[…]

“I am not a happy camper,” said state Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, adding he is frustrated by the lack of transparency on the project. “They are moving forward and we need your help.

“I don’t believe private enterprise should have eminent domain power. In regard to the 10th Amendment, I talked a lot about this during my campaign; we are living it here today. Federal overreach, they are bypassing us at the state, the county, and that is not OK.”

Metcalf urged residents to contact U.S Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

“When Montgomery County is joined together, we are unstoppable,” Metcalf said.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley told the crowd that even though the project would cut through his precinct, he has not been contacted by TCR about the rail line. He said he is determined to stop the project.

“Whatever we need to do to stay united and stay strong, we will support it to make sure this doesn’t happen,” Riley said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Meador said while Montgomery County Commissioners Court passed a resolution late last year that it did not support the project, he added it is time for the court to readdress that resolution and “toughen it up.”

I’ve discussed the Montgomery County issues before. At one point, Montgomery County Commissioners Court passed a resolution saying they would oppose any alignment that didn’t include the I-45 corridor. The impression I get now is that the locals there would prefer to try to kill project altogether. They’ve started collecting the support of elected officials to back them up. A story in the Leader News from a couple of weeks ago that as far as I know never appeared online mentioned three State Senators that have signed a letter to TxDOT opposing the use of eminent domain and any state funds for this project – Sen. Lois Kolkhorst was one, Sen. Brandon Creighton was another, and (oops!) I can’t remember the third. There’s a great irony here in that one of the selling points of the TCR approach has been that by not seeking public money for the rail line they can avoid a lot of the political battles and streamline the process. That sure doesn’t appear to be the case any more.

Meanwhile, the Houston-based opposition is still looking for alternate routes.

So what is the alternative? Civic leaders from the neighborhoods under threat from the two proposed routes have joined together to chart a better way forward, seeking solutions that will allow high-speed rail to serve Houston without blighting residential neighborhoods – theirs or anyone else’s. This inter-neighborhood working group has put forward two suggested approaches.

The first is to terminate the line outside Houston’s central business district, at a location such as the Northwest Transit Center, an idea that Texas Central Railroad itself has floated. Unlike many other cities, Houston has multiple commercial centers, and much of the potential ridership here is located west and northwest of downtown. An express bus service or a light-rail line could connect the terminus with downtown; at a public meeting last fall, a METRO spokesperson embraced the idea of providing such a connection. And terminating the high-speed rail line outside the Central Business District would avoid exacerbating traffic and parking problems the way a downtown terminus would, with riders from around the city having to travel downtown to reach it.

Alternatively, if a downtown terminus is deemed necessary, the approach to downtown should be routed not through residential neighborhoods but down highway or industrial corridors. A route along I-45 was one of the routes examined and rejected by the Federal Railroad Administration, but deserves reconsideration. A route along I-10, which Texas Central Railroad representatives have acknowledged as worthy of consideration, should also be investigated as a way to reach central Houston. Several other variations, involving the Hempstead/290 corridor, I-610 North Loop, and/or the Harris County Hardy Toll Road corridor, are worth looking into.

See here for the background. The actual route has not been determined yet, and as this statement from Texas Central, posted on the No Texas Central Facebook page, makes clear, even the two “preferred routes” that have been highlighted so far are really just corridors. We won’t have a clear idea of what we might get until the Federal Railroad Administration posts the scoping report to its website. In the meantime, there’s still a lot of opportunity to affect things. I’ll continue to keep an eye on it.

Montgomery County really wants an I-45 option for the high speed rail line

They’re not fooling around.

Montgomery County commissioners have unanimously adopted a strongly worded resolution criticizing any effort to run a high-speed train between Houston and Dallas through the western side of the fast-growing county.

Instead, commissioners believe the right track for such a bullet train to take would be down the Interstate 45 corridor, where road congestion is steadily worsening. The Woodlands Township wrote a letter a few weeks earlier expressing the same sentiment.

“There was support for the I-45 corridor and we thought this was initially where they planned to put it. It was to possibly make stops in Conroe or The Woodlands. The discarding of this route was a real slap in the face,” Montgomery County Judge Alan Sadler said after commissioners met Monday. “There is no upside for the new route that goes through the county’s west side. It will just disrupt a lot of people’s lives in the part of the county with the highest potential for development.”

Commissioner Craig Doyal echoed that sentiment. “I think high-speed rail is a good idea. But with no planned stops here, all this proposed route will do is divide the county.”

[…]

One problem with the I-45 corridor is that it has several entrances and exits for food establishments, hotels and other businesses that would have to be navigated, while the utility corridor has none and the BNSF route has only a few, officials said. Also, curves along the I-45 corridor would have to be straightened to accommodate a train speeding down a track at 200 mph, which could prove costly.

In objecting to the BNSF route, county commissioners complained in their resolution that it could force the closure or rerouting of local roads, block access to private properties and increase commuter drive times. Emergency vehicles also could lose critical time if forced to travel longer distances, and such a high-speed train could be hazardous because it requires 8.5 miles to come to a complete stop.

“Listening to the whizzing vibrations every 15 minutes would also be annoying,” the resolution stated.

But possibly the most important issue – though not mentioned in the resolution – is that Montgomery County will gain nothing but inconvenience from this train crossing its territory.

See here and here for the background. Certainly having the high speed rail line pass through the Woodlands would at least allow for the option of a station there that would surely draw a lot of business. The problem is that building something like a high speed rail line through an established and growing area like that is far more complicated, and ultimately expensive, than building it in more out of the way areas. That has its own problems, one of them being that one of the preferred alternate routes also goes through Montgomery County, and the powers that be there are doing what they can to put up obstacles for that. The other preferred route avoids Montgomery altogether, but there are issues with that as well. There are no problem-free solutions, is what I’m saying.

Really, this is another illustration of the fact that the best time to build a major piece of infrastructure is always in the past. Think how much easier it would have been to construct the light rail system Houston approved in 2003 if we had gotten started on it back in 1991, when we were debating a monorail system. We can’t go back in time, but my point is that if we don’t move forward on stuff like this now, it won’t get any easier to do twenty or thirty years down the line. I don’t know what the right answer is, but if the most expedient choice from a political perspective is the I-45 corridor, then the question becomes how to make that financially feasible. Maybe at some point this private enterprise needs to have a public component to it as well. Like I said, I don’t know what the right answer is. I just know that it doesn’t get any easier from here, and if we miss this chance we may never get another one.

More concerns about the high speed rail route

Some people who live not far from me are not very happy about the high speed rail line possibly running through their neighborhood.

The prospect of a high-speed train crossing through First Ward into downtown Houston has residents scrambling to weigh in on the proposal.

“I’m completely opposed to this project. I believe we can work collaboratively, but I don’t think the infrastructure of our neighborhood should be destroyed,” says Alexandra Orzeck, whose home is next to existing rail right-of-way eyed as a potential route for Texas Central Railway’s “bullet train” between Houston and Dallas. Property she owns in Rice Military also could be impacted.

Many of her neighbors agreed during a recent meeting to discuss the project with TCR President Robert Eckels, who is a former Harris County judge and state legislator, and David Hagy, the company’s community outreach director.

[…]

Ideally, the train would enter Houston’s central business district and connect riders with other local transit, maybe even other high-speed routes. But the train route might end elsewhere, like on Loop 610 or even further out on Beltway 8, Eckels said. A draft environmental impact statement being devised now by the Federal Railroad Administration and Texas Department of Transportation will factor into those decisions.

[…]

Local neighborhoods are particularly concerned since the rail company would have eminent domain authority to acquire property needed to build the high-speed rail.

Over the past decade, First Ward has enjoyed a residential and artistic renaissance. New, multistory townhomes continue to wedge their way into the neighborhood, which has a recently designated historic district. The well-known Winter Street and Silver Street artist studios helped establish a state Cultural Arts District here. More studios are coming soon.

Stakeholders say one of two preferred routes for the TCR project could bisect the Washington Avenue corridor on existing rail lines, either on Winter Street or Girard, where rail right of way is squeezed to 50 feet in some place. TCR has said it needs 80 feet.

Local leaders hesitate to support the other preferred route, too, because it impacts Near Northside neighborhoods. TCR should continue to investigate a third route that follows the Hardy corridor into downtown, they said.

Similar concerns are expressed in this Leader News story. A route along the Hardy corridor would make a Woodlands station feasible, so the folks here will have at least one set of allies in that quest. As we’ve discussed before, these are the same issues that will have to be dealt with if a commuter rail line moves forward as well. Of course, commuter trains don’t move at 200 MPH, so there’s that. At the very least, you’d want to review the Super Neighborhood 22 transportation master plan from 2010 that called for putting the existing freight rail tracks in that corridor into a trench to avoid at grade street crossings. It should be noted that Tom Dornbusch, one of the architects of that study, doesn’t think trenching would be sufficient to accommodate the high speed line; among other things, the corridor is too narrow, by Texas Central Railway’s own design specs.

Eckels mentions other possible locations for the line’s terminal, but putting it downtown really needs to be the goal. Just from a connectivity perspective, it makes the most sense. If that makes a Woodlands-friendly I-45/Hardy Toll Road approach the best option, then so be it. Someone will need to convince TCR and the state and federal officials of that.

The process of drafting an environmental impact statement will require TCR to respond to concerns including social and cultural impacts.

The process has been extended to Jan. 9. First Ward residents are asking that the railway administration schedule a public meeting in Houston.

That sounds sensible to me. Give everyone who would be affected the chance to have their say.

Rural counties skeptical of high speed rail plan

This is a bit concerning.

Steve Drake regularly makes the nearly four-hour drive from this city to Houston to visit his fiancée’s family. So he was excited about the news that a private company intended to build a bullet train that would cut that trip to 90 minutes.

“I’m passionate about this. I hope it happens,” Drake said at a recent public meeting. “I don’t want to be driving to Houston for the next 30 years.”

Drake’s sentiment echoed that of others at the first of six meetings held as part of the Federal Railroad Administration’s environmental impact study into Texas Central Railway’s proposed bullet train. The project has also drawn strong support from officials at the other end of the project in Houston.

Yet the reception has been less rosy from rural communities that will be on or near a possible train route. Officials and residents have expressed concern about the noise from trains whizzing past their quiet towns dozens of times a day and about a track dividing farmland and reducing property values.

“I haven’t heard anything positive about it whatsoever,” said Byron Ryder, the county judge in Leon County, which is about halfway between Dallas and Houston. “I’ve talked to other judges and commissioners up and down the line, landowners up and down the line. No one wants it.”

I was a little surprised to read this, as I know from previous communications with Texas Central Railway that they have been doing outreach in the rural communities along I-45. It may be the case that the communities weren’t really paying much attention before – we’ve only been talking about high speed rail in Texas for what, 30 year now? – and thought this was just another piece of pie in the sky. With the Environmental Impact Statement process going on, however, now it’s getting real, and people may be reacting more strongly as a result. In addition, it’s not that long ago that these folks were hearing about a network of privately built and managed toll roads that would be going through rural counties, with little apparent benefit to them. One can imagine why they might have some doubts here. Obviously, I think this is a project that’s worth doing, and I hope these communities can be persuaded there’s something in it for them, or at least that they won’t be harmed. Clearly, TCR has some work to do.

In Grimes County, where the two routes take different paths, Betty Shiflett, the county judge, said many residents felt they did not have enough information to develop an opinion. One factor that would weigh heavily, she said, was whether Texas Central Railway followed through on plans to build a station in Grimes County to allow the bullet train to serve nearby College Station.

“I think people would be a lot more enthusiastic because they would probably take it,” Shiflett said. “I know I would, definitely.”

I’m sure they would. I seriously doubt there would be a station anywhere except Houston and Dallas (and maybe The Woodlands) when it debuts in 2021, assuming all goes well. Stations cost money, and they mean slower overall travel times. Maybe at some point down the line, but not any time soon. Of course, you do have to build the line now to have any hope for one in the future, whenever that may be. It’s your call, Grimes County.

The Woodlands wants to be on the high speed rail route

Can’t blame ’em.

The Woodlands Township is urging federal and state officials to take another look at the potential benefits of adding a high-speed rail corridor along Interstate 45.

Last month, the Federal Railway Administration and the Texas Department of Transportation revealed two potential routes for a proposed bullet train that could one day connect Dallas and Houston by rail, but neither of the routes under review would come down I-45 in fast-growing Montgomery County.

Miles McKinney, legislative affairs and transportation manager for The Woodlands, said there is still time for it and surrounding communities to have some influence on the direction of the project.

“We’ve taken and written a letter asking them to reinstate the I-45 corridor for consideration and to think about it one more time and at least assess it before condemning it,” he said.

State and federal transportation officials recently narrowed the list of potential routes from nine to two. The excluded lines seemed a bit longer, which could prove more costly for a project that already has a price tag of more than $10 billion.

The route that local leaders wants transportation officials to explore is referred to as the Green Field Route. It would begin in Dallas and travel along I-45, passing through Huntsville and Montgomery County before ending in downtown Houston.

The interstate highway runs the length of Montgomery County, whose population is projected to increase from 500,000 to 1.1 million by 2040.

Given the growth of the area, McKinney said, it may be wise to ask transportation officials leading the project to consider adding a rail station north of Houston, near the Grand Parkway and The Woodlands.

See here for the background, and click the embedded image to see all of the proposed routes. I can’t argue with the logic, and in fact in past conversations I’ve had with the Texas Central Railway folks, I myself have suggested that a Woodlands-area station might make sense for them. The two “recommended” routes were chosen because they were the lowest cost, which is a non-trivial consideration in a $10 billion project. A big complicating factor is how routing the trains along I-45 might effect the cost and feasibility of bringing the trains to downtown Houston, where the terminal ought to be and is most likely to be. One possible route into downtown involves the same corridor as a proposed commuter rail line along 290, which obviously isn’t compatible with a Woodlands-friendly location. I don’t know what the best answer is, and unfortunately not everyone can be accommodated. Good luck figuring it all out.

By the way, the Central Japan Railway Company, one of the backers of Texas Central Railway, recently began test runs of a maglev train that can reach 300 miles per hour. By the time this line is finished, it could provide an even quicker ride between Dallas and Houston. Yeah, I’m excited by the prospect.

The wheels on the bus go round and round, even in The Woodlands

Welcome to the wonderful world of transit.

If only…

With help from regional officials, The Woodlands is entering the bus business, a decision that might give south Montgomery County commuters more options down the road.

Population gains pushed the Woodlands-Conroe area from a “small urban area” to a “large urbanized area” of 230,000 residents for the 2010 Census. That bump means someone has to take responsibility for federally awarded transit money.

“Now those dollars are coming to us,” said Nick Wolda, spokesman for The Woodlands Township, the local governing organization.

With the money, however, comes responsibility for overseeing a bus system and stocking up on buses. To get the fleet started, Woodlands officials reached out to the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out federal transit money in the Houston area.

Council officials Tuesday approved a $14.1 million agreement that uses $11.3 million in federal funds and $2.8 million from The Woodlands to buy 25 buses over a number of years, starting with five in the first year.

“It is not all the buses they need, but it is gives them a great start,” said Alan Clark, manager of transportation air quality programs for H-GAC.

[…]

Controlling bus service in their communities means the township and city can adjust service more to their liking and move more quickly, Clark said. By owning buses – and potentially having the funding to invest in more lines – transit officials in southern Montgomery County can start to position the buses to meet the area’s explosive growth.

“This is kind of the maturity of these communities,” Clark said. “Everything is coming together on this. They have made additional investments in sidewalk infrastructure.”

I wish them all the best with that. They’re still going to have to deal with the fact that their lack of a street grid and the resulting traffic congestion will severely limit the utility of their bus network, but it’s a start. At least every bus passenger will be one less car on those crowded streets. It ain’t much, but it’s a start.

How to solve the traffic problems of The Woodlands

All that growth has its downsides.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council, along with local entities including The Woodlands, Montgomery County, the City of Oak Ridge North and the Texas Department of Transportation, are working on a South Montgomery Mobility Study that they hope will ultimately ease the woes of commuters.

Officials say they realize there are no easy answers. But they say the blueprint will help guide transportation planning for years to come.

“It’s obvious. The traffic situation is getting worse,” said Thomas Gray, a Houston-Galveston Area Council planner who is helping to lead the study. “The existing road network can barely sustain current traffic, and they won’t be able to handle the anticipated volumes.”

Preliminary findings reveal that most of the main arterials in and surrounding The Woodlands, such as Woodlands Parkway, Gosling Road and Kuykendahl Road, are either at or over capacity.

Congestion will only worsen as new residential communities and companies break ground in the coming years, according to early data and area council officials.

Township board members said that some residents believe the township and other regional leaders are not working quickly enough, as growth stresses the local infrastructure.

For many, completion of the study can’t come soon enough.

“I have residents calling and saying, ‘Why can’t you do something?'” said Jeff Long, a member of The Woodlands Township board. He said the No. 1 concern he hears from residents is that they’re spending too much time in traffic.

My advice is to invent a time machine, travel back to 1975 or so, and try to convince George Mitchell to do a traditional grid design for the streets instead of the mishmash of self-contained cul-de-sacs that exists now. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t known for some years now that this funnel everything to a single main road approach doesn’t work so well. Doing a grid would also allow for the creation of a public transportation network, and would also allow people to, you know, walk or bike to certain destinations instead of having to drive everywhere. It’s so crazy it just might work!

While I maintain that the time machine approach would ultimately be cheaper and less disruptive to The Woodlands and other parts of southern Montgomery County and far north Harris County – I wonder if all those soon-to-be-relocated ExxonMobil employees are aware of this? – I daresay that’s not likely to be the way the folks that are charged with fixing this will go. What the next best alternative is, I have no idea. Whatever solutions they do come up with, I’ll bet they can’t afford them with their current level of taxation. Good luck, y’all. You’re going to need it.

Helping the hungry of Montgomery County

I have three things to say about this.

Though many are familiar with [Montgomery County]’s growth, thanks to the wealth of The Woodlands and the coming Exxon corporate campus just down Interstate 45, fewer see the poverty and hunger dispersed across the suburban and rural communities.

School officials see it. Over the past decade, every district in the county has seen an increase in the percentage of students designated “economically disadvantaged,” according to the Texas Education Agency.

Last month, meanwhile, the Montgomery County Food Bank opened a new center, boosting its capacity from 220,000 pounds of food to 42 million pounds. The large increase was necessary to meet a rising need from the community that’s being driven in large part by an influx of low-paying service jobs that coincide with the boom, said Rodney Dickerson, the food bank’s president.

In 2013, the food bank served 25,000 to 30,000 individuals per month. This year, the number rose to 40,000 to 45,000 per month.

“The challenge is that people in Montgomery County don’t really see the poverty because they’re pockets that are hidden,” said Julie Martineau, president of the Montgomery County United Way. “Because everything looks beautiful, and the people in poverty are away from the main roads, (many people) don’t know it’s here.”

Some parts of the county, such as New Caney and Splendora, have long struggled with poverty.

[…]

Even with the school’s breakfast and lunch programs in the first half of the summer, Dickerson said, the summer months are a difficult time for many.

“For us, we see it immediately,” said the food bank president. “We see the jump as soon as school is out.”

It’s the combination of rising electrical costs to cool homes and the gaps in meals for school-age children that hurt the most in summer, he said.

The food bank operates four mobile pantries once a month throughout the county, in addition to supplying food to various daily programs and hosting periodic “food fairs.” Since the mobile pantry service began three years ago, Dickerson said, there’s been a steady increase in demand.

Growing suburban poverty is part of a national trend, according to the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. So while the country added some 12 million new poor people from 2005 to 2009, that growth tended to occur outside city limits.

“The growth we saw in poverty was located more frequently in the suburbs than in the cities,” said Carey Anne Nadeau, a research analyst who worked with the Brookings program and is now a masters student at MIT’s urban studies and city planning department. Houston ranked in the top 10 metropolitan areas where suburban poverty grew most rapidly in the 2000s, along with Dallas, Phoenix and Atlanta.

That decade also saw more concentrated poverty, or neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of residents live in poverty. In the suburbs, that sort of isolated poverty can be harder for families to combat, said Nadeau, because it tends to come with fewer affordable housing options and a lack of access to public services like mass transit.

Even suburbs that seem to be booming, like Montgomery County, experience the suburbanization of poverty, she said.

“It’s a trend regional economists talk about all the time, where higher-wage employment can create low-wage employment,” Nadeau said.

Three major groups contribute to hunger in Montgomery County, according to Dickerson: the working poor, children and seniors.

“When you experience the growth that Montgomery County has, in The Woodlands in particular, that brings the need for additional minimum wage workers,” Dickerson said.

1. While poverty is rising nationwide, much of that poverty is concentrated in southern states where not surprisingly, and not coincidentally, the safety net is all but non-existent. If it’s not from the federal government or local government – if you’re lucky enough to be in the right locality – there’s nothing to help you or your kids if you’re poor. Go ahead and starve, the governors and legislatures of these states couldn’t care less.

2. Speaking of local government, there’s nothing in this story to suggest that Montgomery County, which is overall a fairly wealthy place currently experiencing a huge economic boom, has anything to offer the folks on the bottom of the ladder. Given the nature of local government in a place like that, it wouldn’t shock me if their basic plan is to push anyone who needs services into neighboring counties that actually have a heart. I don’t know this to be true about Montgomery County – again, the story says nothing on the subject – but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true, and it shouldn’t surprise you.

3. You know what would really help all those minimum wage workers? Raising the minimum wage, that’s what. Please spare me the BS sob stories about how national fast food chains and multi-national energy companies are going to be put out of business by being forced to pay their cashiers and janitors three dollars an hour more.

The feral hogs of Montgomery County

Because three blog posts about feral hogs are better than two.

Feral hogs – which some find more pesky than mosquitoes and more invasive than fire ants – are alive and well in Montgomery County.

Officials in The Woodlands say that there have been no recent sightings of wild pigs in neighborhoods – but in a growing problem has been reported throughout the county.

“We have not been hearing anything about feral hogs for the better part of several years,” Chris Nunes, director of parks and recreation for the Township, said.

He said that the boars generally reside in larger spaces – closer to water sources like creeks.

“We know of them in natural preserves,” Nunes added. “When it’s dry, they come into neighborhoods looking for food.”

Recent rains have resulted in no sightings, he said.

Keith Crenshaw, with the Houston branch of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Urban Wildlife Program, said swine in the city stay near drainage ditches and flood control corridors.

Crenshaw said Kingwood had an increase in sightings in October, after land was cleared and the way was opened for hogs to move into neighborhoods.

“The wildlife will disperse,” he said. “And hogs don’t have a major predator other than people.”

Still, Crenshaw maintains that wild pigs may live in suburban areas without humans knowing.

“It’s totally likely that people aren’t even aware they’re here,” he said.

[…]

As the county’s human population continues to grow and more land is developed, [Montgomery County extension agent for agriculture Michael] Heimer expects more hogs will move into neighborhoods.

For example, he said several homes will be constructed in what was formerly Camp Strake, a 2,000-acre property north of The Woodlands.

“When they start developing that, we’ll see a lot of wildlife displaced,” Heimer said.

In the meantime, he said it would help the extension office if county residents would report any hog sightings.

“A lot of this goes unrecorded,” he said. “Anything we can do to get information will help. It gives us a way to document what’s going on.”

We’re familiar with the feral hogs of Kingwood. Am I a bad person for admitting that the thought of feral hogs roaming the master-planned streets of Kingwood and The Woodlands makes me giggle? As for what the good people of The Woodlands can do about this menace, I recommend they start by downloading the Texas A&M feral hog app for helpful advice. Keeping the little buggers in line is everyone’s job.

Montgomery County voting shenanigans

Fascinating story out of Montgomery County in which a handful of self-styled activists in Montgomery County attempt to register to vote in a Road Utility District (RUD), a taxing entity that has literally almost no voters, and wind up getting arrested on felony voter fraud charges.

In May 2010, [Adrian] Heath, along with nine of his fellow suburban neighbors from in and around The Woodlands, gathered at a Residence Inn hotel inside the confines of the Woodlands Road Utility District, a 2,475-acre taxing body that is connected to The Woodlands by a coalition of developers, lawyers and well-to-do local insiders. The group included a retiree, a homemaker, a tile contractor, a salesman and an oil-equipment technician.

Heath and his friends claimed residency inside the district despite staying only two nights at the hotel. They did so to elect three of their colleagues in order to usurp the incumbent balance of power in the district. They believed the district was running up public debt and wanted to stop that.

Heath and his colleagues figured they were standing up for their rights, hoping to be part of a system that was imposing taxes indirectly on them in a commercial area in which they did much of their shopping and dining. And they were certain that their group was working within the very blurry lines of state law regarding residency and voting.

The law they followed says that the voter residency requirement can be determined “by the voter,” as Randall Dillard, a spokesman for the Texas Secretary of State’s office, stated in February 2010.

Dillard’s statement was repeated like a mantra among Heath and his pals in the weeks leading up to the election. They succeeded in getting their own candidates in office by changing their voting registration residences in April 2010.

But as in a scene gone wrong in a caper movie, in June 2010, a district judge ruled the election and the group’s part in it invalid and tossed the results.

That might have been the end of it, with a few malcontented wiseasses fruitlessly trying to prove a point.

Instead, as it turned out, the troublemakers had picked a very bad time to make their stand.

Read the whole thing, it’s really something. I had no idea there was such a thing as a RUD, and while I don’t know enough about these guys’ claim that this particular RUD was being financially mismanaged, there’s no question that the setup of it is highly suspicious, and I can see why they took the action they did. Their argument is that they’re being targeted, partly in retaliation by Montgomery County officials such as now-former Sen. Tommy Williams for being a general pain in the rear, and partly by Attorney General Greg Abbott, who wanted to prove that he does too go after “vote fraud” committed by people who aren’t minority Democrats. I couldn’t help but think about the Dave Wilson affair as I read this, but these guys pushed the envelope even farther than Wilson did. I hope they appeal their conviction, if only to eventually provide further clarification about what our state laws about residency for electoral purposes really mean. Check it out.

The red light camera debate keeps raging on

Elsewhere, thankfully. Not here.

They still have these in some cities

League City is the latest to put the plug on red light cameras at intersections. Cameras at three League City intersections were to be turned off by midnight Wednesday, after the City Council voted to cut short its five-year agreement with Arizona-based contractor Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. The contract was set to expire in October 2014.

In Texas, roughly 60 cities have the camera programs, with fewer than 10 in the Houston area, according to data from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.

The League City decision follows action by Montgomery County commissioners last week to end its contract with Redflex, the company that runs 10 red light cameras in The Woodlands.

Redflex spokeswoman Jody Ryan said the contract with Montgomery County is still operational, and it is under discussion with the county.

Use of the cameras spiked to nearly 700 cities by some estimates, but has declined to 530, based on the latest count by the insurance institute.

“They are dropping and adding so much we don’t count their use,” said Nancy White, a spokeswoman for AAA in Washington.

Can I just say how glad I am that we’re no longer debating this in Houston? I had no problems with the cameras, and I still don’t quite understand the fuss they generated, but this is one of those debates that has no resolution. Either you think they’re a good idea or you don’t, and there’s really no middle ground – you either have them in your city or you don’t, and if you don’t like them the only acceptable number to have is zero. It’s useless to cite accident data in the debate – small sample sizes and imprecise definitions render the statistics largely meaningless, with as many studies showing a benefit to having the cameras as there are studies showing the opposite. There’s no compromise – ultimately, one side wins and one side loses. I suppose one advantage to the anti-camera forces winning is that at that point the argument generally ends, since the pro-camera folks no longer have anything to fight about. I have no doubt that had the 2010 camera referendum gone the other way in Houston the anti-camera folks would still be looking for a way to prevail. I’m wearing myself out just thinking about it. Anyway, like I said I’m just glad we’re done with this here. There are plenty of other things to be arguing about, and some of those things do have outcomes that are generally satisfactory to most people. I’m happy we’ve moved on.

Conroe is growing up

Good for them.

Conroe native Jay Ross Martin says he never imagined his rural hometown in the piney woods developing bustling retail centers, a thriving housing market and a population that’s more than doubled in the past 20 years.

The change has catapulted Conroe, the county seat of Montgomery County, into a “new world,” says Martin, a former city councilman.

Increasingly, that new world is more like the city than the country.

This year the U.S. Census Bureau made it official by designating an area surrounding Conroe and The Woodlands as a “large urbanized transit area.” The designation, based on its population exceeding 200,000, makes the area eligible for federal transportation dollars.

Thirty-six new large urbanized areas were added to the Census Bureau list this year. Conroe-The Woodlands was the only new designation in the Houston region.

The population within the area, which extends north to Willis and south to Spring in unincorporated Montgomery County along the Interstate 45 corridor, increased to 240,000 in 2010, nearly triple the 1990 level.

“It’s an indication of large growth between The Woodlands and Conroe,” said Bruce Tough, president of The Woodlands Township, the governing body of The Woodlands. With the new Exxon Mobil campus planned just south of The Woodlands, he added, “we’re going to see a lot of energy and manufacturing companies coming to Montgomery County contributing to unprecedented growth. People better put on their seat belt.”

[…]

Traffic congestion is the most serious downside of growth, residents said.

More people now commute to work into The Woodlands than out of it, community leaders said. Travel time on major roads, such as Woodlands Parkway and Research Forest, has increased dramatically.

“I avoid going to the mall like the plague,” said Woodlands resident Tom Sadlowski. “It’s so crowded.”

Obligatory Yogi Berra Quote: “No one goes there any more. It’s too crowded.”

I think the issue of traffic congestion for these fast-growing areas is bigger than its boosters would like to admit, and merits more attention than these three little paragraphs at the end of an otherwise hagiographic story. Suburban development, with its one-way-in-and-out-of-subdivisions design and complete dependence on freeway access, is a recipe for congestion. There’s no easy way to deal with it, either – adding lanes only does you so much good if everyone is headed for the same on-ramp. I hope now that the Conroe/Woodlands large urbanized transit area is eligible for federal transportation dollars that they will give some thought to regional transportation solutions – buses, and if they’re really smart, commuter rail. That Houston-Galveston rail line that’s been in the works forever would be even more valuable as a Conroe-Galveston rail line. If they’re not thinking about it now, I guarantee they’ll regret it later.

Here comes Trader Joe’s

They’re opening the first Houston-area store in the Woodlands, which doesn’t count as far as I’m concerned. But it’s all right, the one I am interested in will follow behind shortly.

The 13,500-square-foot store at 10868 Kuykendahl has a fraction of the items found in a big supermarket but does offer a trove of gourmet and organic items, often value priced. For example, a 15-ounce box of toasted whole grain oats cereal is $1.99.

The store’s grand opening is Friday, 8 a.m. The Woodlands store and one opening in Fort Worth the same day will be the first two Trader Joe’s in Texas.

[…]

Monrovia, Calif.-based Trader Joe’s will open two more Houston-area stores this year, in the Memorial area at 1440 S. Voss and in the Montrose area at 2922 S. Shepherd in the renovated Alabama Theater.

The Montrose store opens Sept. 21, and the Memorial store will open in the fourth quarter of the year, Trader Joe’s spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki said.

There are also plans for stores in San Antonio, Dallas, Plano and Austin.

See here, here, and here for some background. We’ve enjoyed visiting Trader Joe’s when we’re in Portland with my folks. It’ll be nice to have one here nearby. Between this, the Dunlavy HEB, and the Waugh Whole Foods, Montrose is clearly the grocery store capital of Houston. Prime Property has more on the goings on at the Alabama Theater location.

Population growth in the Houston suburbs

The Chron’s Newswatch blog had a post the other day showing population changes in different ethnic groups for a number of Houston suburbs between 2000 and 2010. It was done as a chart, and while it was a very nice chart, I’m a numbers guy, not a pictures guy. So I translated it all into something that made sense to me, and here it is.

Bellaire Group Pop 2000 Pop 2010 % Diff ==================================== Anglo 13,030 12,237 -6.1% Latino 1,220 1,601 31.2% Black 125 270 116.0% Asian 985 2,360 139.6% Other 282 388 37.6% Overall 15,642 16,855 7.8% Cinco Ranch Group Pop 2000 Pop 2010 % Diff ==================================== Anglo 9,326 12,536 34.4% Latino 649 2,339 260.4% Black 313 640 104.5% Asian 739 2,339 216.5% Other 168 420 150.0% Overall 11,196 18,274 63.2% Conroe Group Pop 2000 Pop 2010 % Diff ==================================== Anglo 20,062 27,148 35.3% Latino 12,000 21,640 80.3% Black 4,012 5,508 37.3% Asian 331 956 188.9% Other 405 956 136.0% Overall 36,811 56,207 52.7% Katy Group Pop 2000 Pop 2010 % Diff ==================================== Anglo 8,266 8,842 7.0% Latino 2,791 4,090 46.5% Black 530 705 33.0% Asian 59 212 259.3% Other 177 254 43.5% Overall 11,775 14,102 19.8% League City Group Pop 2000 Pop 2010 % Diff ==================================== Anglo 34,810 56,993 63.7% Latino 6,135 14,457 135.6% Black 2,272 5,766 153.8% Asian 1,409 4,429 214.3% Other 818 1,922 135.0% Overall 45,444 83,568 83.9% Pasadena Group Pop 2000 Pop 2010 % Diff ==================================== Anglo 66,870 48,737 -27.1% Latino 68,287 92,705 35.8% Black 1,983 2,832 42.8% Asian 2,550 3,130 22.7% Other 1,983 1,639 -17.3% Overall 141,674 149,043 5.2% Pearland Group Pop 2000 Pop 2010 % Diff ==================================== Anglo 27,628 44,531 61.2% Latino 6,098 18,707 206.8% Black 1,957 14,692 650.7% Asian 1,355 11,224 729.8% Other 602 2,099 248.7% Overall 37,640 91,252 142.4% Spring Group Pop 2000 Pop 2010 % Diff ==================================== Anglo 26,779 25,466 -4.9% Latino 5,822 15,421 164.9% Black 2,511 10,262 308.7% Asian 509 1,629 220.0% Other 764 1,520 99.0% Overall 36,385 54,298 49.2% Sugar Land Group Pop 2000 Pop 2010 % Diff ==================================== Anglo 38,443 34,995 -9.0% Latino 5,003 8,276 65.4% Black 3,230 5,754 78.1% Asian 15,009 27,665 84.3% Other 1,583 2,128 34.4% Overall 63,328 78,817 24.5% The Woodlands Group Pop 2000 Pop 2010 % Diff ==================================== Anglo 48,693 73,670 51.3% Latino 3,673 11,449 211.7% Black 946 2,159 128.2% Asian 1,558 4,505 189.2% Other 779 2,065 165.1% Overall 55,649 93,847 68.6%

Please note that the individual totals may not sum up exactly because of rounding. Charts are nice, but I don’t think you can fully appreciate the huge scope of some of these changes without seeing numbers. Hope it’s as helpful to you as it was to me.

Woodlands regional crime lab

I’m glad to see that there’s a new regional crime lab being opened up in Montgomery County to assist numerous law enforcement agencies in the area. But I’m especially pleased to see this tidbit in the story about it:

Local law enforcement agencies that have had to wait six months or longer for forensic test results from overworked crime labs will soon be able to turn to a new crime lab in The Woodlands for help solving cases.

The federally funded Sam Houston State University Regional Crime Lab opened this year to help alleviate chronic case backlogs. It won’t begin taking cases until the end of the year, when it’s expected to receive accreditation.

The lab, which is part of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University, will handle up to 6,000 cases a year from as many as 200 law enforcement agencies in Southeast Texas.

“Instead of having to endure long backlogs at labs in Houston and Dallas, our local law enforcement agencies will be able to get their tests performed and analyzed more timely,” said U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, who began pushing for funding to create the new facility about three years ago. “Saving taxpayer money and precious time means more efficient law enforcement,” Brady said.

Emphasis mine. Yes, those evil, filthy federal funds, doing good while costing less. I guess as long as it’s being used on apprehending criminals, and not helping sick people get health care, it’s okay. Just so long as we’re all clear on the fact that those criminals were apprehended through the benificence of that over-reaching, tyrannical federal government.

Welcome to the not-quite-a-city of The Woodlands

On January 1, a unique experiment in city-like governance will commence in The Woodlands.

A new government body, approved by residents two years ago and called The Woodlands Township, will take control of the Montgomery County community 30 miles north of Houston.

“We’re transitioning from community associations that predominately provided services to a central government unit,” said Don Norrell, serving in the new role as president of the Township. “The key is centralized government.”

The change is historic because no other community in Texas has ever had legislation written to create such a unique government entity and to enable it to enter into an agreement with a city to avoid annexation.

The township is a special-purpose district that, in some ways, will look and act like a municipality when it really isn’t.

The township, for example, can collect property and sales taxes to provide services, but it can’t adopt ordinances. It can maintain parks and trails, but it can’t fix potholes or build new streets.

The township board will be responsible for making important decisions about the community just like a city council. It will be made up of seven board members, including a chairman who is similar to a mayor. Daily operations of the government will be overseen by a president whose duties are similar to a city manager.

It doesn’t say in this story, but according to this archived Chron story, the Town Center Improvement District board “would transition from an 11-member body, consisting of appointed and elected directors, to a seven-member communitywide elected board by 2010.” It also says that five of those seats were up for election in 2008, but I can’t find any evidence of that in the Montgomery County election returns. I guess they held the election, and will hold another one in 2010, but I’ll have to take someone’s word for it. As for the setup they’ve chosen, I don’t really have an opinion one way or the other, I’m just sort of fascinated by it. There will likely never be anything else like it.

How dry we are

Rain, rain, please don’t go away. Texas is too dry to play.

Pedernales Falls, for the most part, doesn’t.

Lake Travis is becoming a lake in name only, regressing in some areas almost to the old Colorado River channel and in others leaving hundreds of yards of dry, cracked lake bed strewn with discarded fishing rods, beer cans and golf balls, and boathouses and docks to nowhere.

“We should leave a bottle down here saying, ‘We walked here in ’09,” Austin appliance repairman Bill Cosby said, as he picked his way through what used to be the lake’s Hurst Creek section.

In New Braunfels, visitors preparing to tube down some stretches of the Comal or Guadalupe rivers — especially those of a certain size and girth — are advised to take particular caution.

“If you’re not careful, there are several places where your butt could hit the bottom,” said J.R. Perez of New Braunfels.

Across Austin and Central Texas, the great drought of 2009 and its accompanying record high temperatures are taking their toll on recreational activities. Only one public boat ramp remains open on Lake Travis, and fewer than a dozen trailers were parked Saturday morning near the Mansfield Dam.

The good news, as the story indicates, is that for the most part businesses that depend on the tourist trade have been able to ride this out and are doing well. That wasn’t the case the last time a big weather event affected lakes and rivers in Central Texas. That time, the problem was too much rain, and I’m sure some day that will be the problem again. In the meantime, the bad news is that the drought this year is affecting non-touristy places as well.

Jim Stinson, general manager of The Woodlands Joint Powers Agency which oversees 11 municipal utility districts in the community, has proposed permanently implementing a two-day weekly watering schedule in The Woodlands. He also is promoting the idea as a director of the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District, a county-wide group charged with managing the county’s underground water supply.

“We know the scientists have told us that we have tapped out our water supply,” Stinson said. “The environmentalists have told us we can’t build any more reservoirs. We’ve got to learn to live responsibly with the water we’ve got.”

Montgomery County relies solely on three underground aquifers for its water supply and its water providers face a deadline of 2015 to reduce the use of that water by 30 percent. The aquifer can replenish about 64,000 acre feet annually through rainfall and runoff, and the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District has issued permits to pump 78,000 acre feet annually.

A three-year study is currently under way by the U.S. Geological Survey to determine what the impact has been on the aquifers and whether water levels are declining.

Needless to say, that’s not sustainable, and it’s not going to be fixed by some El Nino-affected weather that’s expected later this year. Just something to keep in mind, because problems like that are going to become more common as our population increases.

By the way, all this drought has contributed to this being one of the hottest years on record for Texas. I’m sure that comes as no surprise.

Cork recycling

Isiah Carey asks “Have you ever heard of cork recycling?”

I’ve heard of bottle recycling, plastic recycling, and even computer recycling but never cork recycling. Apparently, some Houston area liquor stores are on a campaign to recycle corks from wine bottles. In fact, one store in The Woodlands will donate 2 cents for every cork turned in by its customers. That money will be used for cancer research and care. The store I encountered has plans to match the 2 cents for every cork turned in.

As a matter of fact, I have heard of cork recycling. What I hadn’t heard of was where you could do it locally. Unfortunately, Carey’s post doesn’t really answer the question. And even if it did, it wouldn’t really be economic for me to drive up to the Woodlands to drop off some wine corks. Maybe as single stream recycling gets introduced to more neighborhoods in Houston, wine corks can be added to the list of accepted items, if they aren’t already.